Steve Fromholz’ great song Texas Trilogy perfectly illustrates how a song can capture a moment in time without sitting still. Songwriting books and seminars always talk about the telling detail and the pictures that make a song come alive, but every songwriter knows that somewhere along the line you need some context. A bunch of objects in an unknown place don’t add up to much. I think Texas Trilogy shows how a genius creates context and gives us details using a cinematic technique. Like a movie camera, the song moves from wide shots to closeups and back so that we never just sit and look, but move around the small town the song is about. Here’s how.
The first verse starts from a distance: ”The six o’clock silence of a new day beginning / is heard in a small Texas town. / Like a signal from nowhere, the people who live there / are up and they’re moving around.” As the verse continues though, we get a detail, but one that might apply to every home in town: “There’s bacon to fry and biscuits to bake” until we get to a detail that puts us in a particular kitchen: “On a stove that the Salvation Army won’t take.” From a town and people, to generic bacon and biscuits, and then to “a stove” in a particular kitchen. And to finish the verse Fromholz puts us in that kitchen and makes us the protagonist of his song: “You open the window, you turn on the fan / cause it’s hotter than hell when the sun hits the land.”
Just as an aside about the first verse, its worth noting that Fromholz engages the sense of hearing (“silence”), sight, smell (“bacon to fry”), and touch (“hotter than hell when the sun hits the land”). We are fully involved in the scene not just because Fromholz puts us in it with the use of “you” but also because we can smell the bacon.
Verse two starts in another specific location and introduces us to two specific people: “Walter and Fanny, they own the grocery / that sells most of all that you need.” Then Fromholz moves in even closer to show us Walter and Fanny working on a specific task: “they put out fresh eggs, throw the bad ones away / that rotted because of the heat yesterday.” Then, the camera moves away from Walter and Fanny to show us a last disturbing image from the inside of the store: “The store’s all dark, so you can’t see the flies / that settle on round steak and last Monday’s pies.”
In verse three Fromholz moves back and shows us some stores on the town square: “Sleepy Hill’s Drugstore and the cafe they’re open.” Then we swoop into the cafe, “the coffee is bubbling hot,” and eavesdrop on the conversations of the folks having breakfast as they talk about their troubles. Fromholz doesn’t use that kind of boring description of a general conversation however; instead he gives us specifics: a bad transmission, doctor’s bills and kids that left and don’t call home. We are eavesdropping as we walk around the cafe, not sitting a distance hearing about something remote.
And then we depart, pulling back as the first lines repeat to give us an overview of a small Texas town. We’ve been as far away as an angel hovering over the town, and close enough to see the flies on the meat in a dark general store as we moved around town. A single moment in time is full of movement and action that keeps us completely involved in Fromholz’s story.